Property professionals catching up with design changes

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week April 2007

In the most dynamic period in the history of property, visiting an agent or developer can still be like a trip into the past. You can almost hear the clock ticking in some panelled offices. Others are colourless, carpet-tiled warrens, demonstrating all that is worst in their own product.‘The surveying industry has long been considered a traditional and old fashioned business,’ says agent GVA Grimley. Its Leeds branch, a jumble of offices in fading Victorian premises, reinforced the image.    That has been swept away in a move to the radically new City Point, with bright, open-plan floors and vibrant colours. ‘Safe, regular and uniform’ has given way to ‘comfortable, flexible and fun’, says the firm.

  Occupiers have only recently realised how interior design can affect their bottom line and a trickle of vibrant spaces begun by image conscious sectors such as advertising is fast becoming a flood. Terms like ‘culture change’ spatter annual accounts, often accompanied by new or refurbished offices boasting ‘wow factor’. Now the industry’s own professionals are catching up. This is not just about sprucing up appearances: efficiency is as much a factor as ambiance. Another property specialist, EC Harris, has created a new office for 700 staff in London’s Kings Cross which not only reflects cultural change but also allows for substantial growth.

   The Regency Quarter building and its interior design were chosen to reflect the future of property consultancy, says chief executive Philip Youell. Colourful, open-plan space in clean, light finishes with informal meeting and relaxation areas match the interaction now required.  ‘The building houses our biggest teams of quantity and building surveyors together with project management, consultants, health and safety specialists, engineers, architects, facilities managers, software developers and specialists in our fourteen priority sectors’ he says. ‘It supports the kind of interaction required to bring our professional disciplines and sector specialists together in a fluid and flexible way.’

   Staff numbers have more than tripled in 10 years and continue growing at more than one person a day. Desk-sharing increases capacity and takes account of a large increase in mobile workers ‘touching down’, while wireless ‘hot spots’ enable work to take place away from conventional desks, says Jason Turner, head of Swanke Hayden Connell's interior design team.

   GVA Grimley had similar motivations. The brief to designer TSK was simple: generate a contemporary, modern, flexible environment which is both stimulating and comfortable, but with an emphasis on inter-department business opportunities and cross-sector communication.  There was no set corporate model, says the firm, merely a desire for a ‘comfortable, flexible and fun work environment’ accommodating 75 employees with potential to expand to 100 on one floor.

  Departments had previously been split between cellular spaces over three floors. Now no-one has an individual office.  Scattered ‘hot’ desks serve visiting employees from other offices while small ‘focus rooms’ and informal ‘meeting pods’ provide for short discussions and inter-department meetings. These are defined by flexible curved screens with soft seating and low tables. In fact, curves dominate the office, matching the sweeping building façade. The reception is circular and none of the meeting rooms is rectangular.  Increasing importance of green credentials played a part in transformation, including recycled carpet tiles, controls which switch off lights and heating in unoccupied space, low flush toilets and recycling bins.

  Presenting a modern image to the outside world was vital. The firm says this relocation was its biggest decision since opening in Leeds 18 years ago and wanted the move to play a key role in raising local profile. Client facing and general office areas have been given just as much attention to give the space ‘wow factor’.  Overall costs including furniture and IT cabling was £540,500 + VAT, equating to £555/m2. GVA Grimley feels this well enough spent to have entered the project in this year’s British Council for Offices awards.  


The most subtle changes can have a big impact on offices. Workplace specialist TSK built light-emitting diodes (LED) into storage at GVA Grimley’s planning and regeneration department in Mayfair which change colour to make the offices more stimulating. Head of planning Stephen Brown says this has helped a ‘total transformation’ of the office. The firm understands property and the potential of interior space, he says, so it knew there was a need to ‘improve and refresh’.